I had that conversation again last week, the one that many crime / mystery readers and writers are familiar with when the topic turns to books and a certain kind of reader feels the need to assert his or her literary credentials. It included the phrase, “Oh, I don’t really read that sort of thing …” and contained a class of a sighing smirk between the ‘Oh’ and the ‘I’, and just the featheriest of light emphasis on the ‘I’, all of which was designed to promote the idea that said person was above all that robbery and murder and rape, but – in the interests of harmony – too polite to remind me of their innate superiority.
I genuinely feel sorry for these people. I mean, it used to bug me. Now I just feel sorry for them.
The reason why crystallised about forty minutes later, on the bus heading home. I’m on a bit of a classical music binge at the moment, and was listening to some Schubert on the iPhone, and it occurred to me that anyone who says they read only literary fiction – crime, romance, sci-fi or whatever being beneath them – is akin to someone saying they love music, but only listen to classical music.
Now, I can understand why someone might say that. You could spend a whole lifetime listening to Mozart and Beethoven and Schubert and Chopin and Rachmaninov, et al. The music is fabulous – beautiful and awe-inspiring and heartbreaking and everything music should be.
And yet, if you confined yourself only to classical composers, you’d miss out on The Stones and Dylan, The Beatles and Hank Williams and Dusty Springfield and Leonard Cohen and The Smiths and Antony and the Johnsons and Rollerskate Skinny and the Sex Pistols – well, you see where I’m going. And that’s without getting into soul, the blues, jazz, etc.
Or what if someone was to say to you, “I love art, but only the impressionists. That Renaissance stuff is all a bit gaudy, isn’t it?” I mean, you’d be entitled to believe they simply didn’t know what they were talking about, wouldn’t you?
And on it goes, in virtually any realm of the arts you want to choose. How could you call yourself a movie fan, say, if you confine yourself to a single genre?
Ironically, anyone who tells you that they read only literary fiction is also conveying a subtext relating to their superior intelligence. That their sensibilities are so delicate and refined that only the finest of prose can tickle their fancy. The truth is a little more prosaic, and rooted in ignorance.
The brain, that very fine organ, is a selfish bugger. And it’s in its best interests to make you as much of a moron as it can. That’s because the brain is designed to conserve energy at every opportunity in order to prolong its longevity – this is why humans are creatures of habit, slaves to routine and schedule. The brain hates it when we encounter new scenarios, thus forcing it to map new paths through the maze, get a whole heap of fresh synapses fusing. The brain much prefers it when a reader, say, sticks to a particular kind of book, a distinct kind of storytelling. And if the brain needs to persuade the reader that sticking to that kind of book means that he or she is a superior human being, well, the brain only needs to map out that particular path once.
Personally, I’m of the opinion that life’s too short to read only one kind of book, or listen to only one kind of music, or eat one kind of food, or look at one kind of art. I’m a bit greedy that way – I want a taste of everything. I’ll be a long, long time dead, and I’d hate to be out there drifting in the vast, trackless wastes of eternity thinking, ‘Crap, I should’ve tried the crab cakes, just once.’
“Burke shows again that he’s not just a comic genius, but also a fine dramatic writer and storyteller.” – Booklist. “Prose both scabrous and poetic.” – Publishers Weekly. “Proust meets Chandler over a pint of Guinness.” – Spectator. “Among the most memorable books of the year, of any genre.” – Sunday Times. “A hardboiled delight.” – Guardian. “Imagine Donald Westlake and Richard Stark collaborating on a screwball noir.” – Kirkus Reviews. “A cross between Raymond Chandler and Flann O’Brien.” – John Banville.